Mental illness flung me into a desert last Lent. It wasn’t a desert I planned to enter for piety’s sake—not a safe desert and not a desert I could find my way out of when it got too hard.
I called it a desert because I wanted to find meaning in what I was suffering. I wanted to believe that the Spirit had flung me out there like he flung Jesus after his baptism, and that, after some pain and struggle, I’d come out victorious and find that the season had a purpose. I wanted to write a good story.
But I quickly realized that the metaphor wasn’t romantic. The desert was cruel and incoherent. I still can’t wrestle a narrative out of it. And I certainly came to no victory on my own.
Most of the time my thoughts were abusing me in the pit of the netherworld. On rare occasions, they’d swing me up to a height where I’d wonder why I’d ever thought anything was wrong with me. Neither world told the truth. So I couldn’t trust my thoughts. Even my therapist told me to distract myself from them. Prayer and reflection, the two things that keep me grounded in myself and God, weren’t safe anymore. I didn’t know who I was, and I couldn’t see God either.
Imagine bringing that wounded, estranged self out in public. I felt like a leper. I spread shame wherever I went. And at home, my instability brought out latent sins and magnified others till I’d never felt so dirty and so powerless to become clean.
I kicked against the meaninglessness of the desert. I fought for a story. And I came up with nothing.
I did nothing, and something changed.
God entered my imagination, toward the end of the forty days, and I saw myself in the presence of the Father. I was dirty, wounded, naked—and yet covered from head to toe in tender love. I could stand in that loving presence fully exposed, and yet fully at peace with myself. That love stilled my questions and my search for meaning. It was the Answer and the Satisfaction. And in the stillness it brought, I found the freedom to truly lament.
That Sunday, I sang the Kyrie like it was a wail—and I saw Jesus look at me. I was in the crowd watching him on the dusty road to Golgotha, and he stopped, and turned, and looked into my eyes—oh, the gaze of my Lord—and I looked into his. In that brief beholding I knew he was there in all my suffering, and he felt the pain of it too. Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.
The desert didn’t end there, but it was changed. I didn’t experience a dramatic healing; I couldn’t write a story of triumph. But I could say with Hagar that “I have seen the One who sees me.” And I have seen that he is good.